The Grand Eastern European Adventure: Istanbul

As of today, I’ve been on the road for a whole week.  Part of me can’t even believe that to be true; in many ways, it feels like I just got here.  The other part of me feels like I’ve been gone in a month.  Everyday has been so jam-packed, with so many strange and wonderful new sights and sensations.  Ah, the delightful time-warp of travel!

Family, I’m sorry that I’ve been a little out of touch.  The first few days in Istanbul were so crazy that there was no time to write.  Now that I’m in Bulgaria, I’ve had more time, but have been spending a lot of it chilling out and recovering from Istanbul.

I flew out of San Francisco last Wednesday, and made it to the Frankfurt airport Thursday morning after a long sleepless night.  Security in Frankfurt was surprisingly easy, so I spent a few hours roaming the airport and enjoying being in Germany.  Then I boarded a tiny Turkish Air flight for my flight to Turkey.  Man, I wish I could fly Turkish Air all the time!  It was only a three-hour flight, but there were at least 6 attractive young Turks to constantly feed us.  First there was a little piece of Turkish Delight to welcome you on board, then menus were passed out so you could select your lunch.  I had chicken medallions with tomato rice, ratatouille, a cold green bean salad, and crackers and fresh rolls.  And there was free alcohol!  I got a whiskey and coke and that girl could pour a drink.  Needless to say, I enjoyed my flight to Turkey.

Touchdown in Istanbul, and pass through one of the crazier passport control lines that I’ve ever seen.  Baggage picked up, and my first real adventure could begin: finding my way to the hotel where my boyfriend, Zac, and his dad were staying.  I knew I would be tired and had done my research, printing off instructions on paying for the subway and a metro map and a map of the area of the hotel.  I bought my Istanbul Kart and loaded rides on it with the Billetmatik machine, and soon was boarding the subway like a local.  I tend to be overly nervous and stressed when I have to go someplace that I’ve never been before, but I was surprisingly easy-going. I changed trains at the right station and got on the tram.  I got off at the right station for the 10 minute walk to the hotel – and promptly got lost.  The thing was, we were staying in the Sultanahmet area, the Old City of Istanbul.  It’s an incredibly beautiful part of town, with lovely mosques and squares and fountains.  I didn’t really mind being lost in so much beauty.  I was still relieved, however, when a kindly waiter took pity on my dazed expression and gave me directions.  I had been going the complete opposite direction!  From there on I did well though, pulling out my map a few other times but arriving without any further problems.

That night we took it easy, having a casual dinner at the Happy Hole, the bar/cafe/hangout spot in whose rooms we were staying.  Zac and Kim had been in Istanbul for a few days already, so Zac took me on a little night tour after dinner.  If Istanbul is anything, it is picturesque, and just as beautiful at night with the mosques and monuments lit up.

The next day was a sight-seeing day, and began with the sight I had been looking forward to most on my entire trip: the Hagia Sophia.  Years ago, in art history class I’d learned about this famous place and had wanted to go there ever since.  In it’s nearly 1,000 year history, the Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofia in Turkish) has been a church, a mosque, and now is a museum.  One of the most interesting things about it is that the architecture and interior designs combine all of these elements, having both amazing Byzantine Christian mosaics and frescoes alongside a pulpit facing Mecca for the Imam and these immense hanging discs with Arabic script on them.  It is immense, and filled with such a beautiful light from it’s high windows.  From the moment I stepped inside I was speechless.  The air was so old in there.  My favorite part was the mosaics on the upper gallery depicting Jesus and Mary but also Late Roman Emperors and Empresses.  We also visited the tombs of sultans on the Hagia Sofia grounds, which were interesting but funny as I had to keep unlacing my tall Doc Martens boots to go in and out.  As a sign of respect, you do not wear your shoes inside a Muslim holy building.

Our next sight was the Grand Bazaar, an immense covered shopping area similar to the souks of Israel that I’d been in before.  It is huge, and old, having had some sort of market in that location since the middle ages.  Inside the winding “streets” of the bazaar are vendors selling goods of every kind.  True, there’s the tourist trinkets and trash, but fine jewelery, spices, rugs, fabric, even antiques.  That was actually my favorite section, the antiques.  I drooled over art deco jewelery and watches that I probably couldn’t afford.  It was also quiet in there.  It was one of the few places in the Grand Bazaar, let alone the entire Sultanahmet area were we weren’t constantly being hustled by people to buy their crap, go into their restaurant, take their cruise on the Bosphorus Strait or whatever.  But of course we also had some shopping to do in the Grand Bazaar!  I got some lovely silk scarves that I’m very happy with, and some postcards, and Zac made a killing on souvenirs to bring back.  But after nearly 3 hours, I was pretty weary and done.  I looked on a map of the Bazaar later and realized that in 3 hours, we’d barely scratched the surface and had maybe seen a quarter of the entire bazaar at most.

In my weary and jet lagged state, Zac took me to the calmest place to relax: the courtyard of the Blue Mosque.  Apparently it gets the name from the blue tiles that make up most of the interior, which we did not see since it was 5 on Friday, the prime Muslim prayer time.  But relaxing in its peaceful colonnaded courtyard, in the shadow of its domes and minarets, was perfect.

That night was Kim’s last in Istanbul, so he took Zac and I out for a fabulous dinner with a view of the Bosphorus.  The buildings in Istanbul are all old, tall, and skinny, so to get to this rooftop terrace with the ocean view we had to climb 5 floors up a spiral staircase.  I had a pizza with tuna that was similar yet different to the pizza I know and love.  It had a thin crust, almost like a flatbread, and a cheese that was mild like mozzarella but a little different.  It’s funny, I’ve been having so much pizza and pasta on this trip!  Each country so far has their own versions that are a little different but creative and delicious.

The next morning, Zac and I bid Kim farewell and thank you, and it was time to move locations.  We gathered our belongings and took the metro to the other side of the Bosphorus, to the Taksim area, where we were to meet up with Yahya, our couchsurfing host for that night.  I liked Yahya instantly.  A Syrian artist who’s really into film and teaches English, he lives in an amazing apartment covered in art and has a French girlfriend named Agatha.  Our kind of people, really.  I immediately loved his neighborhood too.  As beautiful as the Sultanahmet area was, it was far too touristy and overwhelming for my taste.  Yahya’s apartment building on a busy street near a grocery store and barber felt so much more like real life.

But we had one more sight to see back on the other shore in Sultanahmet, so off we went back to the Metro to the Tokapi Palace.  This was the palace of the Sultan’s, behind the massive gates where they would live out their wealthy and exclusive lives.  This was a Saturday, and it was incredibly crowded.  A word to the wise on Istanbul sight-seeing: if you don’t need to speak to a real person and can use electronic machinery decently, skip the massive lines for the tickets and get in the short line for the automated ticket kiosk. Once you have your ticket, shove through the teeming mass to get in (nobody lines up at this point, they just crowd towards the two turnstiles to get it.  It’s hilarious, really!)

I really enjoyed seeing the Harem in the Tokapi Palace.  I know what your thinking, but the Harem was actually more than just concubines and licentiousness.  This was the private section of the palace where the Sultan and his family would live out their lives.  And yes, the concubines and eunuchs too.  There are many rooms of the Harem to tour, and while they don’t have any furnishings they are lavishly decorated. I loved the colorful tile work, the delicately carved doors inlaid with jewels and gold, the painstakingly painted frescoes on the ceilings.  Many rooms also included fountains or spigots, as Muslims was before prayers.  The Sultan’s private chambers had a more elaborate fountain, apparently so that his conversations could not be easily overheard.

We didn’t stay too much longer after touring the harem.  It was just too crowded with too many screaming children to be able to enjoy the sights.  I admit, by this point I had gotten overwhelmed by Istanbul.  This worried me.  Usually when I travel, I go into new places and instantly fall in love and want to move there.  With this place, I wasn’t sure if I even liked it.  I’d also heard so many positive things about Istanbul.  Was it just me?  What was wrong with me?  Luckily, there was still one night left, time to turn around that impression and see the true Istanbul.

We went back to Yahya’s place tired and worn, but stepped in the door to welcoming new friends, Middle-Eastern food, and wine.  All thoughts of sleepiness and heartache went out the window.  We chatted and ate and drank.  I talked about movies with an aspiring director named Bashair, also from Syria, Zac talked art with a girl named Noor.  Before too long, it was nearly midnight, and Yahya hustled everyone out the door to catch the last metro downtown.

Istanbul is a town that knows how to party.  On Saturday night, every bar, restaurant, and club was filled, with music and people spilling out into the street.  I couldn’t believe how crowded it was, with people on the way to the next party, and beggars and street vendors trying to get in on the action.  We bought some beers at a corner store and drank them on the street and talked some more.  One of the guys (it was Zac, me, Yahya, and 5 other Syrians at this point) really wanted to dance, so around 1:30 it was time to find a place to dance.  The first bar we went to, up 5 floors on a rickety spiral staircase, had the worst reggae band playing that I’ve ever heard, so we didn’t stay long.  But of course Yahya knew another place to go.  After a tense moment with the bouncer because there were so many of us, the doors opened and we entered a crowded dance floor bumping to the beat of a Turkish pop song.  Yes.  My kind of style indeed.  Now readers, this is something I never ever do.  I’m more of a “let’s drink at home” kind of girl. But when in Rome, I do as my new Syrian friend does, and I had the best time.  I’m not a graceful dancer, but if something has a good rhythm, I will move to it, and the Syrians totally got it and loved it.  I’m just lucky that Zac is not a jealous boyfriend, because these guys were great dancers! We finally dragged our tired asses out of there at 5 am and straggled through the dirty, worn streets for some shwarma while the sun rose.  That morning I still hadn’t adjusted to the time and had woken up at 5:45, so when my head finally hit the pillow in Yahya’s spare room at 6 I had made it around the clock.

Our last day in Istanbul was obviously easy-going, as we didn’t get up until noon, and then some of the guys from the night before came for coffee, so we didn’t even leave to go out and do stuff until 3.  We went back to the same main drag of Taksim where we’d been hours before at sunrise, and it was amazingly clean already from the chaos.  It was also crowded, but a different sort.  It was Sunday in the main shopping district of Istanbul, and locals and tourists alike were out strolling the streets.

We spent some time at SALT, a great art museum.  At the moment they had a piece called the Clock which I loved.  It is a 24 hour film that plays in real-time.  It’s literally clips of classic films, and for every minute of the film there is a film clip with a clock in it that has the actual time on it.  Even though you are just seeing bits and pieces of different movies strung together, it creates a new film of its own out of these pieces.  It is utterly fascinating, and very easy to spend much more time watching it then you think.  I love well-done film montages to begin with, and this was the mother of all film montages, so I was spell-bound.

The last thing we did in Istanbul was eat great street food and visit the Asian shore.  I love that I can travel cheaply by eating street food. The food cart thing in America is over-rated.  It’s not about being gourmet and expensive: it’s about walking to the waterfront, handing an old Turkish man the equivalent of $2.50, and having him hand you a Balin Emeck, essentially a bun with grilled mackerel and lettuce and onion.  Sometimes he will generously douse it in bottled lemon juice and salt for you, or you might do it yourself.  Then sit on the step and wait for your ferry to arrive, trying to avoid the seagulls circling overhead.  That is how you do street food.

The cool thing about Istanbul is that it literally exists in both Europe and Asia.  All of the touristy stuff is in Europe, but I’d never been to Asia, so we took the ferry to the Asian shore for an hour.  It’s a very pretty ride.  Like I said before, Istanbul is just so scenic, and the water is so blue.  The minute we were on the other side, it was apparent that we were not in a tourist area.  Tour bus traffic was replaced with commuter traffic, trinket shops with housewares.  It’s a lot poorer and more run-down on the Asian side too.  We ended up off the beaten path by some apartment buildings.  There were some kids playing in the street, boys playing soccer, a girl on a bike.  It was not necessarily a beautiful area, but its own kind of picturesque, so I pulled out my phone and snapped a few shots.  Immediately, the kids got very interested in us!  The girl started teasing us about being a couple, and asked if we had a baby.  One of the boys playfully tried to get us to give him money but the girl swatted his hand away. We laughed and waved them off.  It was time to be on our way anyhow, to leave this strange yet surprising, beautiful yet overwhelming city behind us.

We nearly didn’t make it out.  From the Asian shore we had to go all the way back to Yahya’s, grab our stuff, and go across the water once more to Sirkeci station to take the bus that would connect to our night train.  It was a frenzied two hours of metro, funicular, and tram railways with much running, sweating, and hauling our bags.  But somehow we made it on the bus with just minutes to spare and were off to the next chapter in our adventure – Bulgaria!

Sorry this has been a long post!  Break it up and read at your leisure.  Also sorry that there are no pictures.  I’m using a very basic hostel computer and don’t want to push my luck with it.  Please peruse the pictures I’ve been posting to my Instagram using the link at the bottom of the page.  And family, expect some postcards and more email and stuff in the future.

Good Luck and Happy Travels,


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